The Ideal Scenes for your High Key Black and White Wildlife Photos

High key and black and white photograph of a lion cub in Kenya.
High key and black and white photograph of a lion cub in Kenya.

Choosing the Scene for a High Key Photograph

Experience has revealed to me that minimalist scenes are best suited for the high key technique.

For example, birds flying in the sky are perfect subjects.

Mammals are also suitable if the background environment is simple and light.

An essential rule to remember when planning to use the high key technique is to choose a background that is not distracting for the eyes of a viewer.

This means that the background tones must be monochromatic. For example, I advise that you avoid a background with very deep shadows.

It would be better to choose a background with lots of clear areas. Thus, the post treatment will easily create a high-key effect. If this ideal solution is too difficult to find, at least strive to ensure that the tones are somewhat homogeneous.

Once the background has been chosen, you must be overexposed by 1 or 2 EV of light. Simply use the camera’s light measurement to perform this calculation.

However, you must be careful not to burn the image: I advise you to use the histogram to perform a check.

I will refrain from explaining technical details of light measurement as it is not the purpose of this article.

If you use the priority mode with speed, be sure to overexpose the image by changing the aperture.

If you use aperture priority mode, overexpose by changing the speed of compensation. In manual mode, you can change one or the other depending on the scene.

Do not use the LCD screen to control the light.

You should only trust the histogram. The screen merely allows you to check the framing and composition of the scene.

For a high key photograph, most of the histogram should be towards the right without completely touching the right side. If this occurs, you have burned the highlights.

Once you have chosen the subject and the scene, you must study the light.

The light must be elevated to erase all the details of the background and preserve those of the subject. It is a real challenge.

Overexposing Does Not Equate with Burning the Photo

The purpose of the high key technique is to create a photograph with many bright areas and very few shadows.

When shooting, you must voluntarily overexpose the photo.

An overexposed photo still retains details in the highlighted areas.

A burned photo is when the details disappear in these areas.

It is important for you to keep this idea in mind.

The photograph should be clear, almost white, with only a few highlights or darker shadows emphasized.

Ideal Scenes for a High Key Photograph

For a photograph in high key, the first ideal scene that comes to mind is often a snowy image.

Indeed, this is an excellent choice because an animal moving on the snow will create a scene with little contrast, few shadows, and clear tones.

As I said before, you simply need to overexpose a little of the background and lighten the area containing the animal.

With a bit of post treatment, the snow can be overexposed to create an unreal, dreamlike effect.

The second privileged setting for this technique is an image of birds flying in the sky. With the exact measure of light to properly expose the plumages, the sky can easily become overexposed. Skies are perfect backgrounds for high key scenes.

Scenes involving sand or savanna are also a good choice. During the overexposure, you will find details in the set that may have previously gone unnoticed. However, this should not be viewed as embarrassing, rather, this effect is artistic. You must remember to have a minimum of contrast present.

Post Processing Is Essential

As I have described in this article, the development or post processing of a photograph is essential if an artistic approach is chosen.

To obtain high key art photography with tremendous impact for the viewer, post processing development is mandatory.

First, I recommend shooting in RAW mode because it is possible to change the exposure easily. JPEG mode can be more difficult and the results less reliable.

In addition, the RAW mode allows you to adjust the white balance in the development, which is not possible to do in JPEG.

Most photo development software helps to smooth the process for creating high key photos.

You must simply increase the exposure without burning the highlights.

The histogram in the development software should not touch the right side of the rectangle. The details of the photograph must be retained.

A burned photo will not be printed properly because the printer will leave white marks in the areas where it cannot apply ink.

After lightly overexposing the image, you need to desaturate the colors of the photograph, and then slightly cool the temperature of the colors.

Using Black and White: An Interesting Complement

Black and white is another creative technique in artistic photography.

Using it with the high key technique can be quite interesting. Black and white significantly enhances the photographer's artistic style.

These two techniques produce ethereal images, provoking questions from the observer.

I use this combination of high key in black and white for certain photographs because it corresponds to the aesthetic nature I aspire to capture. It is only used in specific situations.

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I insist on this last point because the high key is primarily a technique and a tool for a wildlife photographer.

This tool must serve your photographic vision, without limiting or controlling it. It is not a fad that vanishes quickly.

You do not use it just because some other photographer does.

The high key technique in black and white must correspond to your state of mind, to your way of being. If this is not the case, the photographer will find it difficult to create excellent shots in high key because it will not be appropriate, or it will not be used in the proper way.

Try this technique in the field. Print some pictures.

Allow yourself to be carried away by the magic of dreams. If you cannot escape by looking at your own photos, forget the high key technique. It is not for you. You will be more tempted by the low key, which we will see in a future article.


The high key black-and-white technique in wildlife photography makes it possible to create artistic photographs that have a significant impact on the viewer. It is suitable for ethereal and dreamlike art photography. It is a complex technique that requires vast research and practice. Once it is accomplished, however, it greatly affirms the photographer’s style.

For me, the black-and-white technique is a part of our exhibition to create art photographs for our "Around the Spirit" or "Around the World" photographic collections.


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